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Tsunami disaster – countries in crisis

After tsunami, ‘back to school’ brings back smiles

© UNICEF Sri Lanka/2005/Grusovin
Eight-year-old Ishani Bilanka survived the tsunami. She has returned to school, where she is happy to learn and be with her friends.
HAMBANTOTA, Sri Lanka, 8 February 2005 – Eight-year-old Ishani has finally returned to school after four long weeks of upheaval after the tsunami. Now a student at Hambantota Primary School, she beams when quizzed about how it feels to be back. “The best thing is to be learning again and to be here with my friends,” she replies.

Hambantota, a small town on the south coast of Sri Lanka, was ravaged by the tsunami. The town’s once famed fishing and salt industries were completely wiped out, leaving the local economy paralyzed and thousands of families without jobs.

Ishani and her brother were at home playing when the killer waves struck. “We climbed onto a bed, but the bed started floating. It floated right out of the house. We were lucky because right after that our whole house collapsed. The bed we were on got caught on a log and we were then rescued,” recalls Ishani.

Her family, all of whom miraculously survived the ordeal, moved three times in the weeks following the disaster. First they lived in a relative’s house, then in a camp and finally in another village. Each time they moved, they drifted farther away from Hambantota and everything they had ever known.

© UNICEF Sri Lanka/2005/Grusovin
Girls in class at Samodagama Junior School, with uniforms and school supplies provided by UNICEF.
“Finally,” says Ishani quietly but forthrightly, “I told my parents we had to stop moving. My brother and I wanted to go back to school. We missed our friends and my teacher. I love my teacher!”

The Principal of Hambantota Primary School, Mr. Vimalaya Dissanayake, says the tsunami took a devastating toll on his school: Although the building was not damaged, 102 of its students as well as three teachers were killed.

“At first only 10 per cent of students came back when school re-opened on 10 January. Parents and children alike were still traumatized by fear and grief. Gradually, the numbers have swelled,” says Mr. Dissanayake.

“Because of the tsunami, children lost everything. With the support of UNICEF and private donations, we are slowly recovering. My dream for the future is to develop this school and make it better than it was before,” adds Mr. Dissanayake.

UNICEF has undertaken a massive supply and distribution operation to ensure that all school supplies, textbooks, teaching aids, furniture and uniforms are in place for students to return to school. The organization has delivered ‘school-in-a-box’ kits with supplies for more than 400,000 children to help restore normalcy to the children’s lives.

“School is an anchor for the whole community,” remarks Padmini Ranaweera, UNICEF’s Head of Emergency Relief Efforts for Hambantota District. “The children themselves can tell you how important school is in their lives. Getting the children back to school is one of the best ways to help families and communities get back on their feet.”

Experts agree that education is among the best ways to help children recover. On 7-9 February, an international conference held in Bangkok has brought together education experts and officials from governments and the United Nations to map out strategies to educate every child in South Asia. UNICEF Executive Director Carol Bellamy encouraged the leaders to embrace the concept of schools as safe havens and child-friendly spaces. Ms. Bellamy also called on South Asian leaders to capitalize on opportunities to improve educational systems in tsunami-affected areas and throughout the region.




8 February 2005: UNICEF’s Thomas Nybo reports from Sri Lanka on the organization’s efforts to bring children back to school.

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